Friday, May 7, 2010

What made Avatar so successful?

Why Is 'Avatar' Defying the Usual Box Office Patterns?

Here's how it usually works with a blockbuster. It'll have a big opening weekend, then drop off about 40 percent the next weekend, then lose 40 percent from that the next weekend, and so on. Diminishing returns. Everything's front-loaded nowadays: huge opening, then a quick fall-off. This is how it's been for the last decade or so, and the pattern has been remarkably consistent regardless of the film's reviews, marketing, or quality.

Some examples: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King made $72 million its first weekend; then $50 million; $28 million; $14 million, $10 million, $6 million, etc. (All figures courtesy of Box Office Mojo and refer to U.S. grosses.) Spider-Man went $114 million, $71, $45, $28, $14, $10, $7, etc. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen was $108 million, $42, $24, $13, $8, $4, $3, etc. The only thing that varies significantly is how big a drop-off there is from the first weekend to the second weekend. That's where overwhelmingly negative reviews or bad word of mouth plays a part. But even for beloved films, there is SOME loss of audience from week to week. Studio executives are thrilled when something loses less than 50 percent the second week.

But not with Avatar. Avatar opened to $77 million. By the usual standards, it would have been expected to make about $45 million the next weekend. Instead, it made $75 million. This past weekend, its third, it made $68 million. The previous record for a movie's third weekend was $45 million, set by Spider-Man. To still be making this kind of money at week three is unheard of. Why is this happening? Some theories, after the jump.

Its opening weekend wasn't actually all that big. $77 million is a lot of money, but as far as opening weekends go, Avatar's was only the 28th best of all time, right behind The Da Vinci Code. Four other films in 2009 alone had bigger openings. When a movie starts at $100 million, it almost has to drop the next weekend simply because you start to run out of people who haven't seen it. But Avatar had a rather mild opening (comparatively speaking), and thus had enough of an audience pool to draw from in the ensuing weeks.

It's a family event. Now, some movies do manage to retain their audience from week to week. But those are almost always animated films and family movies. Kids don't necessarily see a movie opening weekend -- they're at the mercy of their parents -- so the audience gets spread out over time, rather than being jammed into the first three days.

Avatar isn't a kids' movie -- its animated, blue-skinned aliens notwithstanding -- but its content is tame enough that many parents have no problem taking the whole family. It doesn't have any major profanity, the violence is abundant but not graphic, there's no nudity, and the sex is mild and implied. The story is (ahem) pretty easy to follow, and the amazing 3D visuals are bound to keep kids' attention. And don't forget: Avatar toys were included in McDonald's Happy Meals. So even if the film isn't appropriate for little kids, parents are bound to think it is.

It has broad appeal. Unlike most huge moneymakers, Avatar isn't a sequel, nor is it based on a book or a comic book or a TV show. That may have hurt it at first -- no built-in audience -- but in the long run it seems to be helping. When a film is tied to a particular demographic, it can turn off people who aren't part of that niche. (We all knew people who refused to see Lord of the Rings or Transformers solely because they didn't like the kind of people who were seeing it.) Avatar doesn't have that problem. It's a sci-fi film, but it doesn't have a preexisting geekiness to polarize the audience.

Word of mouth. Most successful movies rely at least somewhat on positive word of mouth to keep the theaters full, but what does that buzz usually boil down to? "I loved it! It's really funny/exciting/awesome!" Avatar has something specific that admirers can point to: It looks like nothing you've ever seen before. Even reviewers who didn't care much for its bland, surprise-free story had to admit the visuals were terrific. I've heard from many, many people who acknowledge straight up that the story is mediocre -- but who don't care, because man, just LOOK at it! Space Mountain doesn't have much of a story, either, but it's fun to ride. Surely this type of buzz has persuaded a lot of people to give it a chance who otherwise wouldn't have. And when those people are blown away by the 3D visuals, they tell their friends, and so on and so on.

James Cameron made a pact with Satan. How else do you explain Titanic being the highest-grossing film of all time? Seriously, think about it. Someone should look into this.

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